Thursday, August 18, 2011

Veganism, Year Three: The French, the Amish, and Vegans

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

Because of this summer's budget controversies, I was not able to write my annual post celebrating my transition to veganism. (See my original 2008 post describing my decision to become a vegan here, and my first and second anniversary posts here and here. I have also written about veganism at other relevant times, the most recent of which was here.) Today, with the policy world providing a bit of breathing room, I return to celebrate three years of cruelty-free living.

In the 1980's, during the height of the manufactured hysteria about so-called political correctness, some stand-up comedians were complaining that they were no longer able to make jokes about particular groups of people. The easy racist jokes had (finally) become off-limits, and the less adaptable wags wondered whom they could safely ridicule. The sarcastic answer became: the French (because everyone still hates the French), and the Amish (because they do not watch TV, so they will not know that they have been offended).

As I have settled into life as a vegan, I have begun to notice just how much of a punching bag vegans have become in the popular culture. Some of this is to be expected, of course, from people who have economic interests tied to torturing and killing animals, and from people who are afraid of unfamiliar concepts. The more disturbing side of the story, however, is the treatment of vegans and veganism in that part of the popular culture that ought to be the most accepting of vegan commitments and ideals. Consider five relatively recent examples, from TV and movies:

(1) Last night, on the medical comedy-drama "Royal Pains," a doctor tells a patient that she is anemic. The patient says, "I've never been anemic before. I eat meat."

(2) An episode of "Futurama" depicted a group of vegans as hopelessly muddle-headed. The character Leela ends up lecturing them about their utter stupidity, describing eating meat as "only natural."

(3) In the detective comedy "Psych," a son tells his father that they have been invited to a friend's house for dinner. The son wants to skip it, because the hosts do not eat meat. The father says, "Well, we can be vegetarians for one night." The son says, "They're not vegetarians. They're something called ... vegans?" The father looks stricken, and after a moment's pause, he agrees that they should lie to his son's friend, to get out of the dinner.

(4) The show "How I Met Your Mother" goes out of its way to ridicule vegans. In one episode, a character's new girlfriend (whose name is Strawberry) angrily announces at a Benihana-style restaurant that she is a vegan, then throws red paint on the chef, shouting "Meat is murder!" One of the show's main characters later describes her as "a dirty hippy." In a later episode, another guest character announces that she is a vegan, saying to one of the main characters: "I wish I could turn off my moral sense and eat meat, but I just can't." Later, after being dumped by her vegan boyfriend, she gleefully eats a steak.

(5) In the 2010 movie "Scott Pilgrim vs. The World," one of the foes whom Scott must defeat is a vegan. The vegan's current girlfriend says: "Bottom line: he's just better than you and me." Being a vegan is said to give a person superpowers, but the vegan character is revealed to be an idiot, who does not even know that chicken parmesan is non-vegan. He is arrested and de-frocked by the Vegan Police, who relish their role in enforcing vegan rules, with smirks and high fives.

Example #1 is, at least, not a matter of heaping derision on vegans. It is, on the other hand, a medical TV show that has set itself up as very sophisticated in its depiction of medical knowledge, yet it peddles the usual nonsense about meat-eating being necessary to good health.

Examples #2-5, on the other hand, all use vegans as the butt of jokes. Comedy of this sort is based on the writer's confidence that his audience shares certain assumptions about the targeted group. From these and other examples, it is obvious that "normal" people are assumed to know two things about vegans. First, vegans are apparently thought to be confused and ill-informed. The stereotype is that of the hemp-smoking, crystal-gazing, enviro-hippie who cannot be reasoned with. Second, vegans are holier-than-thou scolds who are just out to ruin everyone's good time. It does not matter that these are inconsistent beliefs about vegans, because prejudice is anything but logical or consistent.

As I noted earlier, what makes all of this so depressing is that these are not jokes from, say, Ted Nugent on a talk show. All of the examples above come from entertainment vehicles that are aimed at the 18-34 demographic (with interloping middle-aged law professors looking in), the very audience that is generally the most idealistic and most accepting of the idea that we should be willing to challenge the way things have always been done. Oddly, this audience very much embraces environmentalism (and, for that matter, drug legalization), even as it accepts a caricature of vegans as doped-up tree huggers who just need a cheeseburger.

Rather than embracing the possibility that veganism might be worth careful thought, the general vibe is that veganism is just one more thing about which hipsters should feel jaded and contemptuous. Cue the rolling of the eyes. Of course, the essence of being "with it" involves being willing to turn on a dime, with a once-admired band becoming hated once it is perceived as having become too mainstream. Clearly, however, that is not what is happening with veganism. We were never at the stage where veganism was cool, meaning that no one could claim to be truly cool by seeing through the hype.

Admittedly, some of the hostility toward vegans surely is based on excessive zeal on the part of some vegans. One of my nephews, while in high school, dated a vegan who broke up with him (after screaming at him) for wearing a wool cap. There are plenty of people who generate bad PR for every point of view, however. It is not obvious why people should so readily generalize such excesses to all vegans.

I do not view any of this as personal. Being a vegan was the right choice, and none of these examples have ruined even one day for me. "Scott Pilgrim" was an excellent movie, notwithstanding its ignorant treatment of veganism. (Critics loved the movie, too. I guess I should view it as good news that audiences stayed away in droves.) It is annoying, but not a hardship, to go through life knowing that these silly anti-vegan prejudices will pop up every now and then.

I do, however, find it all perplexing and depressing. We count on idealistic young people to, for example, make gay marriage a non-issue, as the young grow up and replace less enlightened generations. If young people have somehow moved past veganism without ever taking it seriously in the first place, then one of the most promising avenues for change has been lost, at least temporarily. The question is whether the tide can be turned. I am optimistic, but temporarily bewildered.